Arriving at the Volunteer Wildlife Centre

Cha-am Travel Blog

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Up and out to get a fruit shake and check emails for the last time before catching a taxi to Sai Tai Mai (southern bus terminal) to catch the bus to Cha-am. I stowed my rucksack in the hold and then went to the 7/11 to pick up snacks and shampoo thinking I had 25 minutes till the bus left at 11am. When I got back to Bay 1, there was no bus. Immediate panic ensued. I had not checked my ticket which said to be at the bay by 10.50am. It was 10.51am. Fortunately a head count had revealed a passenger deficit and it had stopped around the corner, so with more than a little relief I ran to catch it!  


Bus took about 2 hours and when I got off at Cha-am I called the centre to request a pick-up. I was standing in the hot sunshine for some time, and a nice Thai gentlemen came to talk to me. His English wasn't great, but we got along in pidgeon English and hand gestures. He insisted I move into the shade to save frying alive, and even bought me a Pepsi, bless him.


The taxi to the centre took about half an hour. We pulled up beside a large lake and a fenced off forest and I was greeted by a number of dogs, and Emma, one of the volunteer coordinators. I immediately asked whether they'd been expecting me yesterday only to discover they weren't really expecting me for another 5 days. Never mind, I was shown to Room 5 which I share with Lieke, another new girl from the Netherlands, and set about settling in. It is nice to know I can unpack properly, knowing I have a static home for a month!


The second volunteer coordinator took me, Elise and Neil around the centre on an induction. Normally there are around 20 volunteers, but as many people want to volunteer before the wet season starts, the centre will have around 35 volunteers at the moment, arranged through a number of volunteer organisations. The accomodation is pretty basic. The beds are ancient and sag in the middle, the mosquito nets are old and tatty (good thing I brought my own). The electricity is sometimes out for a few hours a day, and the rooms have ancient spiders webs and dust floating on the breeze from our rumbling old fan. The WC is a european style but is self-flush (with a bucket) and the wet room shower is cold water only. For me, I am well used to these kind of conditions, though they fall somewhere short of even the worst hostels I have stayed in, but still I don't find it too bad.


The centre has about 270 animals, 200 of which are primates (190 are gibbons and macques (long-tail, stump-tail and pigmy-tail) split 50/50), 10 are Loris and Dusty Langurs. They have 20 bears, some Black Asiatic, some Malayan Sun Bears. They have a lolloping tiger with spinal damage, who walks like Charley from 'This is Charley' on YouTube (check it out, it's funny and sweet), and also pole leopards, a nocturnal wildcat cross with a Bengal (looks like a kitten with tiger stripes). They have wild pigs, mouse deer, a horse, chickens, about 10 dogs, 6 puppies and two kittens. They have civits (nocturnal), bearcats (real name forgotten), otters, iguanas and a crocodile. They have kites, eagles, a cockatoo and two Great Hornbills (one lame that hops around the centre freely, and another in an aviary). They also have 5 elephants which are part of a seperate Elephant Refuge volunteer programme.


The centre was founded relatively 7 years ago by a gentlemen called Edwin Weick, who I also met today. The centre buys food for the animals with volunteer money, about $100/day, so the money I assumed was for my bed and board is actually for their bed and board! They couldn't exist without us. They have a hospital where they treat the animals, and also domestic animals from the local area. They have a quarantine area, but this is mostly filled with animals that have no place else to go. The centre is waiting for funding to build a new bear enclosure, a new tiger enclosure since they turn so many away, and is currently in the process of building a new gibbon and macques enclosure. They are also fencing off more of the forest to create an educational nature trail, to contain more animals to release back into the wild by keeping them in an area closer to their natural habitat, and also seeding to help reforestataion. Despite the enormous trade in animals and poaching, deforestation and loss of natural habitat is still the number one cause for the decline of animals. 75% of Thailand's forest has been cut down since 1945. The Thai people are actually quite well-informed and want to save their environment, but in other countries there is no understanding. It has been illegal to own wild animals in Thailand for 20 years now but still it goes on as there is little enforcement so poaching accounts for the new biggest destroyer of wildlife.


Originally Edwin came to Thailand from Holland to set up a texile business 20 years ago. It all changed in 1998 when someone gave him a monkey, and he decided to set up a small centre, expecting that it would have about 30 animals. But as time went on, it got out of hand, and now Edwin's centre has been open 6 years. However, it is in fact the second one, as the first one was taken from him when people saw it could make money. There are 8 wildlife rescue centres in Thailand, and all were illegal since it is technically illegal to rescue animals, but since the government has no where to put the animals themselves they tolerate the centres. This becomes difficult when Edwin and other activists get involved in places where their noses aren't wanted. For instance, in Bangkok there is a park known as Safari World which was training gibbons to Thai Box for tourist shows. They campaigned the government to allow them to see the condition of the animals and found they were not being treated properly. The shows were stopped and the some of the gibbons saved, but of those gibbons many were smuggled away to other countries (Cambodia, China, Vietnam) where the shows continue, and 28 died waiting to be rescued. Additionally, it drew attention to Edwin and his allies who started to recieve death threats. Edwin has been arrested and charged on more than one occasion, he is the 'most wanted animal activist' in Thailand. He was bailed out by the minister of forestry who believes he is being targeted by a certain 'animal entertainment' businessman. When another minister was installed and started making arrests of people in the business, all the zoo owners got together and campaigned to the government to have him removed. Because of their political contacts, they succeeded, just proving how influential they are.


However, now Edwin's centre is safe since he has signed a legally binding contract with the Abbot at the temple who owns the land, so he cannot be ousted for any reason, though people have tried. The temple owns the land, but have no control. All Edwin must do is pay the rent, and must be able to prove that anything done with the land is to aid either nature, animals or conservation. He owns the lease for 50 years, which is the longest legal time he could sign the contract for.


We are lucky to see Edwin here as he is currently away a lot in Laos. On the border between Laos and Vietnam near the central highlands is an area of several million acres that will be flooded in the next 4 months as part of a dam project. Edwin was asked to help relocate animals, but was initially told he could only take the 20 most endangered types, which he refused to do for ethical reasons. When the media got hold of it, the Powers That Be changed their mind and told them to take what they could. They estimate they can save about 4000 animals but up to a million will be lost, and those that are saved will only be the more obvious ones they can see to catch.


Many animals at the centre were originally domestic pets but were abandoned or left at temples when they were no longer wanted. The monks did their best but don't always know how to take care of the animals properly; this is the problem at the tiger sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, North-east Thailand. The monks do their best but it isn't enough, and the tigers would have been tortured initially to get them to become docile, even if this was not inflicted by the monks themselves. Additionally the monks have differing views on how to successfully take care of the animals, even though they mean well, simply because their culture gives them a different outlook.


Another common problem with animals that arrive is obesity, if they had poor diet and little exercise from too small enclosures. Some are slightly mad from being kept in cramped, dark conditions. Some have behavioural problems; pulling out their fur, attacking other animals and so kept in solitary confinement. Some have aversions to women, some to men, so we will have to learn which cages to avoid. One gibbon leapt towards me when I ventured too close to the cage, but then equally Simon was almost grabbed by another gibbon further along the cages.


The gibbons and the bears are one of the commonest trafficked animals. Both are commonly bought as pets, but bears are used in black bear bile farming, where a steel tube is insterted into their gall bladder and the bile harvested for the CMT (Chinese Medical Trade). Additionally bears are considered a delicacy in some places, and a whole bear will fetch $10,000 at a restaurant. A gram of black bear bile will fetch the same price as a gram of heroine. Gibbons are captured for tourism. For every baby gibbon caught, on average 8 gibbons will have to die. For every 600 gibbons removed from Borneo, 2000 gibbons will die. The gibbon mother will be shot from the tree, and her whole faily too, if they try to protect the baby. The baby may die in the fall, or later from shock, in which case another whole family will die to replace that one. The worst thing a tourist can do in Asia is to buy a wild animal to release it from its circumstance, it only perpetuates the problem so the trader goes out to kill another family.


The commonest animal trade route is from Malaysia and Thailand through Burma and into China. Traveling by boat from Thailand to Burma, no one checks the hundreds of boats that travel this way, even through customs at the docks.


Another sad trade is that in elephants. There are two types of elephants, wild ones and domestic ones. Domestic elephants are removed from their mothers after 2 years (they should be with them for 4 years) and subjected to a week's constant torture; poking, cutting, sleep deprivation. When finally the elephant's spirit has been broken and they will do anything to stop the torture, then they will be retrained for tourism. This is the lives of the elephants that you see all over Asia, posing for photos, offering rides, doing elephant treks. I am so glad I didn't do an elephant trek in Cambodia as I didn't feel it was the right place. I want to know if there are any ethical places that do eco-elephant trekking, but knowing now how much Cambodia has a hand in animal trafficking, I'm glad I didn't give money to perpetuate that tourist activity.


We watched a couple of videos in the evening (there are 2 main companies in the world making animal documentaries - the BBC and the National History New Zealand Company NHNZ), Linley's Lifeline from Animal Planet and a second programme called Dateline and talked to Edwin a bit about his work before turning in around 11pm after dinner.

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photo by: thelailama